By Matthew Foley, Content Creator at ISOW

I grew up in the Southeastern United States. Where I came from, Catholics were viewed as a strange version of Christianity. On the surface, it was probably because of things like large cathedrals, statues of saints and Mary, fogs of incense, and, of course, the strange liturgical vestments of priests.

As I got older, I also heard about things like indulgences and people wanting to receive eternal life based on their works rather than Jesus’ death. I also heard about prayers to Mother Mary. All of these were foreign to me. I was raised as a Protestant. The 507 years between the split between Catholicism and Protestantism only increased the mystery.

The march towards Protestantism began with a German friar named Martin Luther. Some say he liked to stir up trouble. Of course, he didn’t start out that way, but according to many, he did end up that way.

There are many theories about how Luther ended up on the path and chain of thought that he did. Many believe it was because of his commentary on Romans, where the words of Paul gripped him:

“For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘The just shall live by faith.’” —Romans 1:17 NKJV

This phrase whispered in his ear, driving him to question the way the Roman church had handled forgiveness of sins and living in God’s grace. It is essential to know (a) how the church viewed grace before this, (b) what went wrong, and (c) what Luther brought to the forefront about grace. Let’s dive in and see what one of the church’s most influential theologians in the Middle Ages said about grace.

Church History and the Subject of Grace

Thomas Aquinas, a leading Catholic theologian, said that grace first comes as “anyone’s love” for another, which then manifests itself in a “gift freely bestowed,” resulting in gratefulness being given back as grace from the one who receives the gift (Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Prima Secundae). This means that he believed that the “full circle” of what defines grace is that God loves us, gives us the gift of grace, and then we give back our gratitude to finish the circle. In Catholic theology, giving back gratitude is done through acts of love toward God and others. So, in this view, you aren’t really living under God’s grace without doing acts of love in response to grace.

Okay, since we just got a brief crash course in Medieval Catholic theology, now we can talk about Luther. Later in his life, Luther recalled how, as a young monk, he was disturbed by the term “the righteousness of God.” He felt it was like a mountain that couldn’t be climbed. Thinking back to those monastery years, he understood it as a constant crawling toward God that he would never be able to achieve. Even as a priest, he felt he could not attain God’s goodness over him.

When he read Paul’s words in Romans, a revelation struck him. Is this not God’s gift of grace to us, not our ability to grasp God’s nature and achieve it on our own? When Luther further studied this issue, he concluded that Augustine of Hippo, a well-respected church father, also understood God’s grace in this manner. Following this line of thought, Luther concluded that God’s saving grace or justification has nothing to do with a person’s behavior. It is solely based on the person responding to God in faith.

Well, this writer would agree with Luther’s assessment that a person’s actions cannot keep the grace of God from pouring over a repentant heart. But I also believe that responding to God’s grace will also require, or ultimately bring about, the complete transformation of a person’s heart.

If we understand Luther’s view as a reaction to the culture of his day, then things may become more clear. Roman Catholic Churches at the time stressed multiple teachings that were challenging, even alarming.

For instance, the way that many Catholic “Evangelists” preached about purgatory disturbed Luther. He claimed that one preacher, Johann Tetzel, would tell church people praying for their dead loved ones, “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs” (Ninety-five Theses 31:27). In other words, if you give indulgence money to the church on behalf of your loved one, it will more quickly free their soul from purgatory to go to heaven. This infuriated Luther.

The idea that works and merit could influence the grace of God in such a disturbing way, or that humans could do anything to “earn” an increase of God’s favor, didn’t sit well with him.

For Luther, to trust God and gain righteousness through that trust led him to develop a theology that became central to Reformed Christians. As time passed, Luther abandoned various views of the Roman Church and emphasized his own view of justification more. He shifted his emphasis from what a Christian must do to the trust a Christian has in God.

Though Luther, at times, could sound as if he was saying a Christian could actively sin and remain righteous, his view of a believer’s righteousness was more like a marriage. He saw that although a spouse could act unkind or inconsiderate, that did not change the fact that the couple was married. Similarly, Luther saw a Christian’s relationship to God in this way: no matter what a person may be dealing with in their imperfection, they are still joined to God in covenant, making them righteous.[1]

The Protestant Reformation and Grace

The Protestant Reformation launched because of Luther’s fight for faith alone as the cornerstone of grace, leading to a new understanding of how ordinary people could receive grace. This view of grace has continued in Christian preaching from Lutherans to Presbyterians and even to John Wesley, who emphasized sanctification in addition to Luther’s view of justification.

Where Luther may have leaned to the extreme of trying to divide a believer’s behavior from grace, John Calvin and John Wesley both sought, in their respective ways, to connect righteous behavior and holiness to this view of Justification.

Calvin believed that if you are a faithful Christian (one of the elect), you will continue to grow in righteousness. Wesley thought believers must pursue the Spirit of God to sanctify them and strive to pursue a life of good works, though this is not to earn salvation.

The issue of whether Christians were cleansed or justified by their actions or by trust in Christ alone was Luther’s primary concern. The precise way Christians carry out righteous deeds continues to be a point of contention among various groups, but all Protestants agree that human works cannot attain God’s favor and the gift of grace. However, viewing grace not only as favor but also as empowerment to live a holy life is a growing topic of discussion in the Evangelical church.

Pursuing Holiness

John Bevere, a well-known Christian author and minister, talks about holiness in his sermon “Pursuing Holiness” found here. He mentions that grace is not just an unmerited gift of favor, but also an empowerment to live holy. This is likely an extension of Wesley’s theology, which used sanctification to describe holy behavior in the lives of Christians, separate and apart from salvation. The connection of righteous deeds and actions to salvation is vital in today’s church.

Believers today have an important decision to make. Will we trust the finished work of Christ on our behalf that brings salvation, makes us holy, and begins the work of sanctification in our lives? Will we also pursue the heart of God by pursuing a life of purity and holiness, asking God to empower our attitudes and actions (Philippians 2:12-13)?

None of us have the power to transform our own hearts, but the blood of Christ saves and cleanses from all sin (1 John 1:9-10; Hebrews 9:12-15). According to Romans 10:9-10, if we will simply confess or declare with our own mouth that Jesus is Lord, and then believe in our heart that God has victoriously raised Him from the dead, we will be saved. Then, empowered by the Holy Spirit, we must “make every effort … to be holy; for without holiness, no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14).

To learn more about how grace works and the importance of pursuing a holy life, check out our online course, Theology of Grace, by clicking on the link or by visiting

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[1] Carl Trueman, “Justification and the Protestant Reformation,” The Gospel Coalition,